Every hiking couple includes one partner who takes risks and one who takes care. One who wants to go farther and one who wants to make camp. These traits complement each other. But, over time, differences sharpen. The risk taker, under Mr. (or Ms.) Reasonable’s protection, becomes dangerously confident. Mr. Reasonable, meanwhile, grows more wary.
I was sure there wasn’t anything about the Breakneck Ridge Trail we couldn’t handle. The supposedly scary part is a rock scramble no worse than many we’ve done in the Adirondacks. Tom, my safer half, seemed to accept this.
Trails.com named Breakneck Ridge the best trail in North America. Really, I thought — the same North America that includes the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon? Not that the ridge isn’t beautiful. But it’s getting stomped to death by urbanites attracted by the trail’s fame and a Metro North stop at the trailhead, where they can get route maps on their smartphones by scanning a soggy QR code tacked to a pole. The Cold Spring fire chief, Matt Steltz, calls that train “the killer” because the algae bloom of inexpert hikers is in constant need of rescue.
Hikers were already swarming the trailhead when we arrived early in the morning. No one was interested in the Wilkinson Trail a few paces down the road, so I suggested we take that trail first and then loop back down the ridge.
The trail was hard-packed, as if by a great migration of land animals. Still, we had the place to ourselves. Atop Sugarloaf Mountain we saw the Hudson River and the ruins of Bannerman Castle, and across the way Newburgh and Storm King Mountain. Along the river the commuter trains screamed and whined.
It was then I told Tom that I was using the trail to explore the nexus of fear and pleasure. I quoted Rousseau: “I must have torrents, rocks, pines, dead forest, mountains, rugged paths to go up and down, precipices beside me to frighten me,” he wrote in 1785, “for the odd thing about my liking for precipitous places is that they make me giddy.”
I thought I detected in Tom a heightened attentiveness, like when my dog hears something out in the woods that might suddenly become very important. But he said nothing. I took some snaps and we moved off.
We saw the happy hoards approach soon after turning onto the Breakneck Ridge Trail. The woods were filled with the scent of their floral body washes. One man sang an anthem while waving a large flag. Another stumbled down the trail as he typed a “We made it!” victory message into his phone. A young woman asked if there were a way to get off the mountain without having to go back down “those rocks.” As I directed her, she plied her underarms with roll-on deodorant, as if trying to rub away fear.
If the militant nationalists, roll-on girls, and Facebooking boys could manage the cliff, we’d have no problem, I decided. This going down the wrong way, with full frontal exposure to Storm King and the river, was a good idea too. Hikers on their way up didn’t see the sweeping view at their backs until they got to the top. Then it was turn around, gasp, fist bump, snap picture, update Facebook, Tweet.
Suddenly, in the manner of a man grabbing for a branch just before he heads over the falls, Tom stopped some hale fellows who had just crested the ridge.
You guys familiar with this trail?
Yes sir, the point man said. Is it okay going down?
“Well,” said the point man, “there’s no problem going up. But I climb this trail every day and I wouldn’t do it.”
He then told us he was enjoying his last weekend as a civilian before reporting to Parris Island to become a Marine.
That was enough for Tom. Here was a man who would join the Marines, but who would not climb down Breakneck Ridge.
I flopped down on the rocks, panting with thwarted purpose. For one wild minute, I considered giving them the slip. I can get down this mountain in no time, then send a text that I’m waiting at the bottom with a couple of cold drinks.
But I let myself be marched back from the brink and onto the bypass trail. Once again, I’d made Tom’s heart race, while he made mine secure. That’s enough to make any hiker giddy.